Twilight: Falling Off The Wagon

[Content Note: Addiction, Rape, Murder]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 13, Edward and Bella spend the weekend alone together in the woods.

Twilight, Chapter 13: Confessions

Previously on Twilight, Edward was telling a delightful story about this one time at band camp when his brother Emmett killed a couple of people who smelled to him precisely how Bella smells to Edward. Swell!

   “What did Emmett do?” I asked to break the silence.
   It was the wrong question to ask. His face grew dark, his hand clenched into a fist inside mine. He looked away. I waited, but he wasn’t going to answer.
   “I guess I know,” I finally said.
   He lifted his eyes; his expression was wistful, pleading.
   “Even the strongest of us fall off the wagon, don’t we?”

   “What are you asking? My permission?” My voice was sharper than I’d intended. I tried to make my tone kinder — I could guess what his honesty must cost him. “I mean, is there no hope, then?” How calmly I could discuss my own death!

And here is something that I wish the Twilight series explored in more detail, and which I feel it does not: the Cullens empathize more with murderers than they do with the murdered.

This is understandable. Almost all of the Cullens are guilty of murder and/or have ended human lives since becoming a vampire. And if they are to have any kind of companionship with the larger vampire community -- the only kind of real companionship they are allowed to have, since they are forbidden from disclosing their nature to humans and since the werewolf community poses dangers to the masquerade as a whole -- that means they have to be willing to associate with murderers. It is not surprising to me that the Cullens would view their selves, their family, and their friends with sympathy and would, as a natural consequence of cognitive dissonance, start to view the act of murder with some detachment.

What does surprise me is that Bella is so sanguine about this topic. Not so much calm about discussing her own death -- she finds that unusual, but I actually do not, given that she's already had quite a bit of time to think through what this relationship may mean to her in terms of risks, and we've already additionally touched on her apparent depression and overall detachment from her life. So I find Bella's calm discussion of her own death less surprising than she does. But I am surprised by her calm acceptance of Edward's empathic priorities, such that he immediately leaps to defend Jasper and Emmett without focusing even a little on their deceased victims.

Of course, we've already seen Bella accept humans as food in the natural scheme of things by asking Edward with genuine curiosity why he would choose to eat animals instead of humans, so this is probably more of the same -- and it's probably a function of Bad Writing and Protagonist Centered Morality. The reader is supposed to like Jasper and Emmett, and that can't be easily accomplished if we spend too much time dwelling on the kindly father of three who Emmett brutally murdered because he smelled a little too much like vampire onion dip or whatever. Yet there was an authorial choice here to make these supporting characters both murderers and (theoretically) likeable, but without ever really addressing the disconnect between those two things.

And this strikes me as rather irritating in a series that has been marketed for being very "ethical" in the sense that it's an abstinence romance where the sexual abstinence hinges at least in part on the sanctity of marriage and the protection of Bella's immortal soul, and where even behaviors like drinking caffeine are hinted at as immoral and to be avoided. And yet we're supposed to accept and empathize with genuine murderers who show no real contrition for their crime and who -- for good reasons or ill -- continue to associate with other non-contrite murderers while being likable for playing baseball in their free time. And this ultimately works because it's easier to empathize with jovial folks who are front-and-center in the narrative rather than with some nameless faceless red shirt who bit the dust years before the story even started. But I have issues with this.

I shouldn't leave the impression that this incongruity is never addressed in the series. It is touched on in Breaking Dawn when the Cullens start to gather allies into their home; the mere fact that the vampires have been brought to the area by the Cullens means that they share some responsibility for the murders those vampires are committing in Washington state in order to feed. But to the best of my knowledge, this objection is dismissed as soon as it is raised as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of protecting a heterosexual cis white woman and her cis white baby girl. Obviously.

   “No, no!” He was instantly contrite. “Of course there’s hope! I mean, of course I won’t . . .” He left the sentence hanging. His eyes burned into mine. “It’s different for us. Emmett . . . these were strangers he happened across. It was a long time ago, and he wasn’t as . . . practiced, as careful, as he is now.”
   He fell silent and watched me intently as I thought it through.
   “So if we’d met . . . oh, in a dark alley or something . . .” I trailed off.
   “It took everything I had not to jump up in the middle of that class full of children and —” He stopped abruptly, looking away. “When you walked past me, I could have ruined everything Carlisle has built for us, right then and there. If I hadn’t been denying my thirst for the last, well, too many years, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself.” He paused, scowling at the trees.

And the worst part is, we wouldn't have needed to derail the Romance in order to have Edward learn that human life is more meaningful than simply how it affects his attempts to blend in and his private conscience.

Right here, right in this exact passage, is where we could have worked in a pretty damn important lesson that if he had met Bella in an empty alley and if he had murdered her because she was a stranger and therefore her life was less valuable to him than his addiction, then it would have been a tragedy of epic proportions. Not because this Romance wouldn't have taken place, but because he would have carelessly taken the life of someone he now knows to be the most valuable person in the world (as far as he is concerned).

But Edward isn't thinking about that. He's not slowly understanding that his addiction needs to come down to more than just chance and conscience, because what he's been doing isn't working. He's not awakening to the realization that random humans are important even in ways that he cannot accurately assess from the outside looking in, and that murdering them causes ripples in society beyond merely whether or not he can live with himself and his self-loathing. He's not regretting that he nearly murdered someone he cares about because she is valuable and special and it would have been a tragic action on his part.

No, he's brooding over the fact that the Cullens might have needed to move back to Alaska again. Or, failing that, Isle Esme. At best, he's worried here that his family would have had to go on the lam permanently from the Volturi. At worst, he's worried here that his family would have had to go on the lam temporarily from the human authorities. In either case, he's not worried that murdering humans is wrong on a deeper level than how it affects him. This is a moral compass issue, and it's one that I don't feel Edward ever really fixes.

   “To me, it was like you were some kind of demon, summoned straight from my own personal hell to ruin me. The fragrance coming off your skin . . . I thought it would make me deranged that first day. In that one hour, I thought of a hundred different ways to lure you from the room with me, to get you alone. And I fought them each back, thinking of my family, what I could do to them. I had to run out, to get away before I could speak the words that would make you follow. . . .”
   He looked up then at my staggered expression as I tried to absorb his bitter memories. His golden eyes scorched from under his lashes, hypnotic and deadly.
   “You would have come,” he promised.
   I tried to speak calmly. “Without a doubt.”
   He frowned down at my hands, releasing me from the force of his stare. “And then, as I tried to rearrange my schedule in a pointless attempt to avoid you, you were there — in that close, warm little room, the scent was maddening. I so very nearly took you then. There was only one other frail human there — so easily dealt with.”
   I shivered in the warm sun, seeing my memories anew through his eyes, only now grasping the danger. Poor Ms. Cope; I shivered again at how close I’d come to being inadvertently responsible for her death.

No. No. NO. Everything about this passage is wrong.

Bella would not "have come" to Edward the afternoon after that class, and any claim that she would stated here is based on her current attraction to Edward and not on an accurate remembrance of her feelings towards him that afternoon. When she first met him, he was openly angry and hostile, to the point where she was flinching and shrinking away from him and genuinely (and accurately!) afraid that he was thinking about seriously hurting or even murdering her. Unless vampires really do have hypnotic dazzle powers and aren't just super sexy, then I cannot imagine there was anything Edward could have said that afternoon to lure Bella off into the cold wet Forks forests.

And then there is this contemptible bullshit that Bella would have been in some way "responsible" for Ms. Cope's death, had Edward indulged in his murder-frenzy then and there. I don't blame Bella for having this thought; she's been raised in a culture which has told her from day one that since she is a woman, she is therefore responsible for the actions of others, and particularly for the actions of men. So it is not surprising to me that Bella would have internalized the message that she is responsible for preventing Edward from killing innocent people, in the same way that many women internalize the message that they are responsible for preventing men from raping them. Nor am I surprised that Bella would feel more visceral sympathy for Ms. Cope's near-murder than she would for her own: again, this is pretty basic rape culture stuff that I would expect Bella to have absorbed, were she a real person.

What I am angry about is the failure of the narrative to do anything more than repeat this message wholesale, without any kind of pushback or deconstruction on why this message that Bella has internalized is wrong. And, in fact, the narrative almost seems to encourage this viewpoint: everything up to and including this point would indicate that Edward is 100% on-board with this view of Bella being responsible for Edward's behavior. Or, at best, Edward's behavior is accidental -- a simple "fall off the wagon". Whoops! Haha! I didn't mean to rape murder you there, stranger! Are you okay? No? Well, it's not my fault, you know. I've been so good for so long, but sometimes life throws you bumpy roads and you fall off the wagon, you know! Back to the ol' abstinence grind tomorrow!

I get that this passage -- the whole lot of it, from the food analogy to Ms. Cope's brush with death -- is supposed to establish complication to Edward and Bella's relationship. And I'm okay with that; it makes sense to me that a relationship with a human and a vampire who eats humans is going to have some ups-and-downs and the occasional close call. Fine.

But this was not the way to establish it, not if the intent was to make Edward genuinely sympathetic and not if the intent wasn't to reinforce the idea that White Male Protagonists can't and shouldn't be blamed for their impulsive actions. Because both Edward as a character and the narrative as a framing device seems to indicate heavily that Edward (and Jasper and Emmett) aren't really responsible for the murders they commit, and that when they do commit murder, the real tragedy isn't that a valuable life has been snuffed out but rather than the Cullens' cozy, privileged existence is threatened to be made slightly less cozy and slightly less privileged.

And when responsibility is finally doled out, the onus lands on Bella -- a woman one hundred years Edward's junior who never even had an inkling that a blood-lust like his could exist, let alone might be focused on her. She is the one to blame, for existing, for being so irresistible, and for putting herself not only in his way but in his way in such a way that the available witnesses were endangered. Her murder and the murder of Ms. Cope are treated as her responsibility to prevent, even as she is given no tools whatsoever with which to prevent these things.

It's possible that the narrative doesn't mean for us to agree with Bella when it comes to the doling out of responsibility. Yet neither is she contradicted in her view. And the pains the narrative takes to repeatedly insist that nothing is ever Edward's (or Jasper's or Emmett's) fault means that there's a responsibility void in the narrative, and a nearby woman just waiting to be pushed into it.


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